Tarentum couple face charges over baby's death
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In handwritten letters, Nicole Dull delivered the news that her 1-month-old son, James Jr., was dead.
She wrote "as if she was already gone," her sister Kari Lager said, with instructions to bury her next to the infant and her boyfriend, James Victor, the infant's father. They planned to kill themselves.
By the time the letters arrived at the homes of relatives on Saturday, Ms. Dull and Mr. Victor were already in jail on charges they failed to report the boy's death to authorities. They told detectives they were worried they would be blamed because of the history of their involvement with the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families, which had a caseworker checking in on them weekly because they had a history of addiction. They also face charges of abuse of corpse and conspiracy.
Ms. Dull, 31, and Mr. Victor, 52, both of Tarentum, remained in the Allegheny County Jail Monday as investigators continued to piece together what transpired between when his grandmother last saw James alive, last Tuesday, and when police discovered the couple and the boy's body at a Super 8 Motel in Butler on Friday.
An autopsy was performed Saturday afternoon, but officials with the Allegheny County medical examiner's office have yet to determine how the baby died. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.
According to a criminal complaint, a housekeeper discovered a letter taped to a mirror at the Avalon Hotel and contacted police. The letter, written by the couple, said their baby died in his sleep Wednesday morning. It also said the couple had made an unsuccessful suicide attempt and weren't ready to turn over the child's body. They attached the business card of their caseworker. Children, Youth and Family Services declined comment, citing confidentiality laws.
Police put out an alert to be on the lookout for Ms. Dull's gold sedan, which officers in Butler later spotted in the parking lot of the Super 8 Motel. They were transported to the county police headquarters in Point Breeze, where Mr. Victor told homicide detectives that they put their baby to sleep at around 10 or 10:30 p.m. Tuesday. When they checked on him at around 1 or 1:30 a.m., he was dead. Mr. Victor attempted CPR on the boy but could not revive him.
He told police he was fearful they would be blamed for the death and planned to commit suicide at the Avalon Hotel. It's unclear how they planned to kill themselves, but their first attempt was unsuccessful. They went to the Super 8 Motel with plans to try again.
Ms. Lager said her sister gave a similar account in the letters, saying she swaddled the boy and put him down in his crib on Tuesday night. She knew something was amiss when she checked on him early Wednesday morning and he remained motionless in his swaddle, because he normally squirmed out of it during the night.
"When she touched him, he was already gone," Ms. Dull's sister said, relaying what she read in the letters. Ms. Dull wrote that because of her history with addiction, she worried that police would say she neglected the child.
Ms. Dull met Mr. Victor while both were in drug rehabilitation about a year ago, while she battled an opiate addiction.
"They thought that they found each other for a reason, and that they were good for each other," Ms. Lager said.
Their son, she said, represented a new start for both of them. Mr. Victor, who plays drums in a band, bought his son a tiny drum set. Ms. Dull stayed clean.
But she relapsed near the end of her pregnancy, when she began to use opiates again to dull the pain of her pregnancy. She had to be weaned off with Suboxone. A caseworker with Allegheny County met with the couple and their families, emphasizing their need to stay clean.
Baby James was born addicted and remained in the neonatal intensive care unit at Magee-Womens Hospital for three weeks.
When James went home in early August, his parents were hypervigilant. Ms. Dull called her sister, a nurse, constantly with questions. He went to doctor's appointments and appeared healthy. His father eased him to sleep by playing him CDs of classical music.
"They were proud. They were happy," Ms. Dull's sister said. "We don't understand. ... We're trying to piece things together ourselves and deal with the death of the baby."
Funeral arrangements for the boy are pending.
First Published August 21, 2012 12:00 am